Malcolm's Reviews > Deconstructing Sport History: A Postmodern Analysis

Deconstructing Sport History by Murray G. Phillips
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's review
Jul 23, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: historiography, sport-studies

Historians are an argumentative bunch, which upsets many undergraduates who think that being scientific means being positivist, accepting blindly the empiricist assumptions that positivism demands, and finding Truth in the singular. We spar not just about analyses of past but also about how we do our analyses: although we shy away from the words, our exchanges are often epistemological and ontological, and almost always methodological. Those of us of a certain age grew up with Carr vs. Elton; those of us of a certain outlook have dog eared annotated editions of Carr in a foxed Penguin paperback. The richness of this debate, and years of disciplinary scepticism about positivism and empiricism (note that Ranke’s status as apotheosis of empiricism may be undermined depending on how we translate wei es eigentlich gewesen), means that I remain continually perplexed by those in our vocation who break out the crosses and garlic at the mention of the other word T-word, theory.

The title of this collection contains two of the words that repel these T-phobes. Phillips has assembled a group of sports studies scholars employing forms of postmodern scepticism to explore the theory, practice and prognosis of sport history. Phillips reminds us that as historians of sport, we are historians first. In this vein Patricia Vertinsky accentuates the continuing absence not just of women but of gender in historical analyses of sport. The paradox of the oft made claim of sport history’s close links to social history is that we seem over the last twenty years to have missed the impact on social history of Joan Scott’s case for gender. Vertinsky’s challenge lies in her parallel invocation of Doreen Massey’s gendered analyses of space. It is a timely reminder of a need both to keep up with and put into practice broader historiographical developments. Along with Doug Booth, Phillips notes that good history is not just about mellifluous prose but about clarity of message, process and results. In noting that clarity is not necessarily jargon-free both note we often need to rely on technical language to make our case, and that good and meaningful history is not just about mass accessibility, in the same was it is not just about the ‘facts’. Booth also sketches a set of paradigms and models deployed in sport history to note that for the most part we remain practical realists walking a tightrope between discovering the past as it really was or as it essentially was (the disputed meanings of eigentlich).

The collection itself undermines any notion that there is some sort of monolithic demonic postmodernism. The contributors deploy such a range of approaches that ‘postmodern’ in the title does not invoke any sort of unified theoretical outlook. A number of authors are explicitly of the literary turn. Michael Oriard discusses the methodological implications of literary and linguistic methods while Jeff Hill emphasises the anecdotal character of much newspaper reporting to argue that something as seemingly real as a newspaper report can also be understood as part of an ongoing dialogue involving readers, writers, and publishers. Rob Rinehart’s metaphor of the ‘past’ as a holograph is compelling: the holograph appears differently when we look from different perspectives, but is always something that is there. Whereas others in the collection consider how postmodern approaches might influence the way we research, Rinehart argues that they could also shape the way we write. Other significant methodological issues are explored. John Bale looks at how texts (Hill notes that the symbolic status of a text changes when we call it ‘evidence’) may be shaped by the forms in which they are presented, their contextualisation, or the reasons for their constructed to make the case that a particular colonial photograph’s apparent verisimilitude is partial. Catriona Parratt accentuates local and popular knowledge to explore an annual ‘folk’ football match in Lincolnshire around the First World War to see understandings of its survival despite the wartime decimation of the male population as part of a dialogue about the locality in the nation, and the global in the local.

Book reviews are, by their very nature, idiosyncratic (and maybe therefore a validation of the literary turn): three papers from a very strong collection stand out for me. Brett Hutchins draws on Habermas’s notion of modernity as an unfinished project to make compellingly a case for us to consider the character of the dialectical exchange between modern certainty and postmodern doubt in developing and deploying both our approaches to the past and our use of information derived from that past. Our methodological emphasis on sources and confirmable evidence means that historians have tended to shy away from transcendence in sport: Charles Sprawson is a notable exception. Synthia Sydnor critiques sport historians’ “easy alliances with social history and sociological models” (p 203) to explore postmodern theology as an analytical tool in sport history. Syndor left me, despite my non-belief, wanting to know more about the potential for theology to inform our scholarly approaches, if for no other reason than as a way to explore the transcendence that so many of us experienced in sport, and that continues to draw in its adherents. Finally, Steve Pope uses approaches developed in cultural studies to consider relationships between jazz and basketball during the first half of the twentieth century (and by implication hip hop and basketball in the now). Pope has given us an engaged analysis of sport as a cultural practice in dialogue with other cultural practices that locates basketball in a broader socio-cultural framework to insist that we remember that our explorations of sport are analyses of bodies in motion, of fluidity, of micro-change and of rhythm.

The authors all traverse theory and practice and suggest ways the current trajectories may take us. In doing so, they all engage with and consider ways to manage and use the epistemological fragility of sport history. Most of the authors are sceptical postmodernists, if postmodernist at all. We do not need to be postmodernists to recognise that the challenges of the postmodern era may and probably should be epistemologically unsettling. Equally importantly, these challenges confront our dominant historiographical approaches, and should enrich our arguments and disciplinary reflexivity. For the most part, only the most recalcitrant T-phobes is likely to be repelled by much of the collection (although as one sympathetic to the T-philes, perhaps I am being too generous). Fundamentalists beware: T-phobes, this collection undermines much of your criticism; T-philes, it denies the legitimacy of some of your proselytism.

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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Anthony (new)

Anthony So Patricia Vertinsky 'accentuates the continuing absence not just of women but of gender in historical analyses of sport'. You have to be kidding me. Unless patricia wrote this 20 years ago she is having a lend. I have worked and taught in this area since the mid-1990s and believe me there is far from a lack of women and far from a lack of gender analyses. How can she justify this?

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